- Photo by Anton Riecher.

Photo by Anton Riecher.

Culture change has been the name of the game in industrial firefighting during the last two decades, said Tab Garrison, a captain with the emergency response team at the Decatur (AL) BP petrochemical complex.

“Used to be if you had a fire you almost didn’t want to disturb anybody,” Garrison said. “You always tried to handle it yourself. You didn’t want to upset anybody.”

Today, complex employees are taught to report the fire before trying to extinguish it.

“Get the ERT on the way,” Garrison said. “I’d rather know that if something turns sour on me I’ve got back up on the way.”

Firefighters at Decatur BP in Alabama are facing one of the biggest culture changes possible. By the time this article is published the 1,000-acre site in Northern Alabama will be the property of Indorama Ventures, a Thailand-based chemical producer. “

Their CEO has already visited our site and reassured us that the plant has a good thing going and the new owners don’t want to disturb that,” Garrison said.

Although it will no longer be part of the BP fire protection group, the ERT is still expected to receive training of the highest caliber under the new management, he said. The interview took place during a live-fire training session for the Decatur fire brigade at the Gulf Coast Emergency Response Academy in Axis, AL.

The GCERA fire field is built around one central, multipurpose, multi-level fire training prop that incorporates as many as 30 different emergency scenarios, ranging from chemical process haz mat to live fires involving vessels, pipe racks, pumps, tanks and flanges.

“The least injury is still very important to us,” Garrison said. “We are very safety minded. We want everyone to go home in the same shape as when they arrived.”

Chemicals used in thousands of products from plastic water bottles to flat-screen televisions originate at Decatur. The complex can produce one million tons of purified terephthalic acid (PTA) annually, as well as paraxylene (PX), a raw material for PTA production. The site is also the world’s only commercial manufacturer of naphthalene dicarboxylate (NDC), a specialty chemical used in new-generation polyesters and resins.

Receiving special attention in pre-planning are the tank farms at the complex, he said.

“The tank farms handle products from our paraxylene units that are hydrocarbons,” Garrison said.

Most shifts can be handled by a crew of two officers and four firefighters, he said.

“With six people I can do an effective rescue in most situations,” Garrison said. “But if it’s a fire situation our protocol is to send out a call to extra people via a paging system which alerts additional people plus our incident management teams on their cell phones. We are instructed to remain in a defensive mode until additional people arrive on scene.”

If the situation is resolved before the extra help arrives, the on-scene commander issues a second call to send anyone in route back home.

 - Photo by Anton Riecher.

Photo by Anton Riecher.

Fire can be simultaneous with hazardous material spills. GCERA instructor Bill Green told the Decatur ERT that while working from the knees might be convenient for using pavement level portable monitors or difficult to reach valves, it can easily compromise the integrity of bunker gear.

“In an emergency situation, the pumps moving fluids to the waste treatment plant might back up,” Garrison said. “You need to practice not going down on your knees because your bunker gear can absorb the chemicals.”

The Decatur ERT consists of about 70 personnel who work as chemical operators at the complex as well as emergency responders on a volunteer basis.

“You have people on the department because they feel that it is a calling, something they like to do,” Garrison said.

Less than 200 acres of the complex site is industrially developed. That development includes two fire stations.

“Our main station has all the vehicles in it,” Garrison said. “The other station is used for storage.”

The ERT fleet includes one 70-foot ladder truck and a pumper truck, both carrying 1,000 gallons of foam. Other apparatus includes a rapid response truck and a truck stocked with medical supplies, breathing apparatus and high angle rescue equipment. The ERT has two trailers for emergency equipment, one specifically for hazardous materials incidents.

“Because our site is on a river bank that accommodates barge traffic, we have two boats for pulling boom in a hazmat spill,” Garrison said.

Foam is the essential component in the Decatur ERT’s pre-plan. For years, the minimum requirement for foam on site was 6,000 gallons. Today, the minimum far exceeds that.

“We keep enough foam on site to handle our worst case scenario,” Garrison said. “We actually keep foam stations all over the plant site. Each unit that has hydrocarbons has fixed monitors with foam sitting there for quick action.”

The complex also has two trailers each carrying 3,000 gallons of fire fighting foam that can be towed to any location where needed..

“With regard to foam, we have always been on a first name basis with Williams Fire and Hazard Control,” Garrison said. “We also have mutual aid with the 3M plant next door and the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, TN.”